Tilda Swinton is a paradox, a contradiction, a still point at which opposites converge. Her chameleon face is at once Victorian and futuristic, extraterrestrial yet earthly—her finely etched features appear to be carved out of clay. From one angle she is a handsome, somewhat masculine woman. From another, a handsome, slightly effete man. She seems to straddle time, eras. She often looks ageless; at other moments, all of her 48 years. It is likely this protean quality that has made her a favorite of directors—the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Danny Boyle, and Jim Jarmusch, among others—who no doubt understand her power to seduce an audience: Viewers want to watch her, to solve the puzzle of her face.
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On a recent Friday evening, at that dusky hour when the light turns blue, Tilda Swinton sits poolside at a table at the Avalon, a retro-chic hotel in Beverly Hills. “Are you cold? I just want it a bit warmer, if that’s possible,” she says, in a clipped British accent, angling a heat lamp toward her chair with one long elegant arm. She orders ginger ale and grenadine: a makeshift kiddie cocktail. It’s odd to hear her voice, but also her expression of human desires. Did Orlando feel cold? Did the White Witch of Narnia drink? You remind yourself that she is not some sort of fantastical being; she simply plays them in the movies.
Still, Swinton does not seem entirely of this planet. Her statuesque 5’11” form is sheathed in a gray cashmere Jil Sander sweater and a black funereal Vivien Westwood dress. Her hair, dyed pale blond, is swept back into a David Bowie-style peak. Her face is a pale canvas free of makeup. The look is androgynous, punk, regal, and out there. Some might call it (as was said of her avant-garde Lanvin Oscar get-ups) fashion-person weird.
“I have children with one person and am in a relationship with someone else. The fact that there is no acrimony… that’s the only thing that’s remotely strange, and that’s really sad—I’m sorry for everyone that it should be so rare.”
Directors have long been tapping into Swinton’s otherwordly strangeness. For a time, it seemed she might be typecast, forever playing some version of ethereal. But in recent years, she has appeared in more down-to-earth roles. A handful of directors have figured out that her alien beauty and remote aura could serve as a useful counterpoint—as a visual that wordlessly evokes the poignancy of a fine-spun character trapped by mundane circumstances. In Mike Mills’ 2005 film Thumbsucker, Swinton played Audrey Cobb, the elegant, discriminating mother of a teenager in the disorienting throes of adolescent exploration—a goddess among small-town mortals. In the 2007 film Michael Clayton, she portrayed Karen Crowder, an outwardly hard-charging but inwardly agonized attorney, and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work. The character’s delicate features and mannered bearing hint at her former principled self, while her lank black hair and stuffed-sausage body reveal the extent of her spiritual corruption.
Now, with next week’s release of Julia, Swinton has reached new frontier in her turn toward realism. Swinton plays the very earthy title character, a blowsy, fleshy, fortysomething alcoholic who boozes, schemes, screws, and otherwise manipulates her way through the film. “I wanted her to feel like a ruin, like a real waste,” Swinton says crisply, enunciating each word, as she tends to, with a headmistress’ precision. To prepare for the role, she put on weight by eating “all sorts of things I’m not particularly keen on—a lot of pasta and a lot of pies.” (Swinton avoids wheat because of its somnolent effects on her: “I was sort of falling asleep for the filming,” she says.) But packing on pounds was not that difficult because she had already, in her words, “porked up” for Michael Clayton.
Dissipated as the character is, Julia is still in possession of a certain charisma. In the film’s opening scene, we meet her in a green sequined mini-dress and dangly earrings, fake lashes glittering from her lids and a blue drink sloshing in her hand, as she staggers around to “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics. In the next scene, she comes to—in her walk-of-shame evening wear—and tumbles out of a married man’s car. Several times in the film, we witness Julia wake up this way—obviously still drunk, licking her lips, her dry tongue lolling about in her mouth: a feral animal in need of water. “What do I have? I smile. I eat shit from guys. I get drunk and I’m getting old,” she says in a moment of wry self-assessment, after she has lost her job and liaised with the latest in her ongoing cavalcade of men. But she is not a loser, to use a harsh term too often applied to practicing alcoholics. One senses a powerful vitality—she has strong legs, a loud voice, searing red hair—turned inward, a significant lifeforce gone awry.
Swinton’s work telegraphs the idea that we are all acting, that life is a series of micro-performances, of improvisations—perhaps particularly so for women.
Such was the intention of Swinton and the director, French filmmaker Eric Zonca ( The Dreamlife of Angels). The pair did not want to create the standard portrait of defeat, a la Leaving Las Vegas, or one of redemption, like 28 Days, but to show a rarer, more dangerous truth—that alcoholics often have a powerful appeal. “There’s an energy and fantasy-filledness in most of the alcoholics I’ve known that I’ve never really seen in the cinema,” says Swinton, “I think there’s a triumph attached to someone who’s got the guts to chuck themselves down the neck of a bottle in that way,” she remarks, perhaps controversially, ice clinking as she shakes her glass. (Ironically, she does not drink alcohol. “I’m a hopeless alcoholic for the same reason I can’t do wheat,” she says, “I fall asleep or throw up.” Hence the kiddie cocktail for the actress playing the drunk.) Swinton says she and Zonca “set out not to make a film about an alcoholic, but an alcoholic film”: There are dizzying shifts in genre that are meant to mimic an “alcoholic state,” in which, as Swinton puts it, one “can’t build anything, and things just keep crashing down.”
It seems clear that whether or not this film ultimately works is not of much concern to Swinton. “You put that here, and you put that there, and you see if it rises,” she says, “and some soufflés just don’t rise. But that’s not the point. It’s much more about the process of making it.”
And though Swinton must enjoy the process—she has been acting in films for 20-plus years, starting as the muse of the late avant-garde director Derek Jarman after a brief, unhappy stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company—she does not consider herself an actor. “It has truly never been my intention to be a performer, and I think it’s probably best that I stop performing pretty soon and start writing,” she says, in total seriousness, referring to the ambition to be a poet she abandoned while a student at Cambridge University in the early 1980s. (She has recently published several pieces of criticism in the journal Critical Quarterly.) “It’s like a big red herring,” she says of her acting. “I kind of want to stop it, really.”
A SHORT WHILE LATER, when we speak by phone, Swinton, just back from a trek through Nepal, notes that the character of Julia allowed her to “play someone closer to an actress than I have ever been or ever would be. She tells the truth only twice in the film. The rest of the time she is lying through her teeth. It’s me playing out the idea of being an actress.”
“I am very interested generally in the concept of identity…” she says, “the idea that one can limit oneself by deciding to be a certain thing. That you can say, ‘I am a woman. This means I can or cannot do this.’ Or ‘I am a mother. This means I can no longer do this.”
Swinton has called from her home in Nairn, Scotland—her family’s roots there can be traced to the ninth century—where she lives with the writer and painter John Byrne, the father of her 11-year-old-twins, as well as with her boyfriend, Sandro Kopp, a painter 18 years her junior. “I have children with one person and am in a relationship with someone else,” she says of the arrangement, in her no-nonsense way, “The fact that there is no acrimony… that’s the only thing that’s remotely strange, and that’s really sad—I’m sorry for everyone that it should be so rare.”
As she talks, it occurs to me that many of the characters Swinton has inhabited are, like Julia, actresses in some fashion: the ultra-confident executive sweating profusely beneath her silk blouse ( Michael Clayton), the adulteress lying to her husband ( Burn After Reading), all manner of mothers and wives figuring out their identities ( The Deep End, Thumbsucker, to name just two). Often, you can see Swinton’s characters inventing, reinventing, and perfecting their selves within the film: rehearsing before a mirror for a business meeting; examining oneself in a mirror in some private assessment of self-worth (there are a lot of mirrors); donning a mask to kidnap a child. Swinton’s work telegraphs the idea we are all acting, that life is a series of micro-performances, of improvisations—perhaps particularly so for women. She shows us the seams in a life, the fault lines that exist between a constructed self and an enacted one. Her ability to convey this notion—even more than her singular looks—may explain the post-modern appeal of her work.
“I am very interested generally in the concept of identity…” she says, “the idea that one can limit oneself by deciding to be a certain thing. That you can say, ‘I am a woman. This means I can or cannot do this.’ Or ‘I am a mother. This means I can no longer do this.’” A child’s voice can be heard in the background. ‘ Darling, I said I will do it when we get back from the beach,’ Swinton whispers in response to her daughter, Honor, who “has decided she wants to knit” and would like her mother to cast some stitches.
Swinton returns to our interview. “The idea of living a multifarious identity is something that has always occurred to me to be absolutely the norm.” I ask her about her own identity. “How many ways do you want to split it?” she asks, “You could say that everyone, at any one time, is a mother, a lover, a daughter, a sister, a neighbor, a colleague, an antagonist…I’m no more exotic than anybody else.”
Amanda Fortini has written for The New Yorker, Slate, Elle, and New York, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.